Meme

by Andy West

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
1, 2, 3, 4, 5,
6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Alan Bradley, a traditional, private man, is the keeper of his local town park. A series of social, political, and ecological misfortunes embitter him. But he does have personal contacts, and ready access to the Internet.

An e-mail chain letter cheers him up at first, but then he learns that the message is not what it pretends to be: it is, in fact, an insidious cultural virus.

Alan is drawn inexorably into witnessing titanic struggles taking place within humanity’s collective subconscious, battles that are projected onto the stage of human culture and history. To be able to decide whom and what to believe, Alan must, like the rest of us, first be inoculated against the viruses within.

part 7

In addition to the usual poetic see-saw trick, the line “we’ve multiplied our possessions but diluted our values” is an attempt to tap into our guilt about possessions. It’s commonly thought that the love of possessions is a modern phenomenon, associated with industrialized, capitalist societies. Yet commentary throughout the ages suggests that not only is this untrue, there was in fact a stronger glorification of possessions in past eras, plus much less sympathy for the poor, i.e. those who don’t actually have any possessions. A poet from around 2500 years before Christ wrote this lament about his possessions, which were stolen by raiders:

My possessions like heavy locusts on the move have been carried off,
Oh my possessions I will say.

My possessions, who comes from the lands above, to the lands above has carried off,
Oh my possessions I will say.

My possessions, who comes from the lands below, to the lands below has carried off,
Oh my possessions I will say.

My precious metal, stone and lapis lazuli have been scattered about,
Oh my possessions I will say.

This poem comes from one of the earliest civilizations, that of Sumer, which gave us the wheel and writing. However, they didn’t use modern grammar! The central stanzas can be comprehended more clearly as: “They who come from the lands below, to their lands below have carried off my possessions,” where above and below probably mean up-river and down-river. In other words, his stuff has been distributed near and far and he has no chance of recovering it!

The Sumerians also held poverty in contempt, and their literature contains many jibes at the poor, a particularly bad example being: “When a poor man dies [collapses], do not revive him.” It’s probable they had little or no practical charity, and certainly no trace at all of spiritual consolations like “he raiseth up the poor out of the dust [...] to inherit the throne of glory,” which came packaged with more benign philosophies and religions, millennia later. It would seem that far from being diluted, our values have improved considerably since then.

So now back to the core! Its layers of to-and-fro, true-and—false, true-and-cynically true, flawed preaching etc. continue throughout the whole thing, forming a super-sized sandwich. Examples of mechanisms like this can be found in contemporary times, centuries ago, and thousands of years ago.

The meme’s particular language of expression is a detail, because the lineage is much older than English. While particular ‘family members’, of which ‘Paradox’ is one, have their own tricks and construction, similar phrasings are found in other languages both modern and historic.

For instance, scrawled between other Latin graffiti upon walls in later ancient Rome, you may well have seen: “we have far more citizens but far less honor.” This particular expression of ‘the past is always better’ played upon the fact that Roman citizenship was originally reserved for just those in the capital city but was gradually extended over the centuries, eventually encompassing by A.D. 212 all people (except slaves) born within the empire’s bounds. This rankled with some in Rome, and the meme exploits that fact for its replication.

Incidentally, ‘the past is always better’ meme works particularly well in mature or post-empire societies. It obviously doesn’t have the same appeal when a new cultural passion is blazing and everything is on the up. Though it has some presence in every country, it’s also less successful in highly religious societies, where constant, formal rules reduce the difference between past and present, holding back or disguising change. The high rate of cultural evolution in western societies probably makes them more vulnerable to this particular meme.

Alan broke off here, digging out some chocolate biscuits from his drawer to follow the sandwich with. Memmet’s explanation was transmuting into a history lesson, but one that fascinated him. He even found the robbed Sumerian aroused his sympathy, though the poor man’s voice echoed from extremely ancient times and he’d been dead for thousands of years!

It was strange to think that the basics of society changed so little. Quite a revelation in fact. He had somehow never really thought of the people living before Jesus as even having an emotional dimension. Nor of those from before the ancient Greeks as having writing, and certainly not poetry! Yet the Sumerian had lived way, way before either.

And though ‘Paradox’ had certainly fooled him, it looked by all accounts to be spawned from a pedigree lineage that was very old indeed! This knowledge made him feel a little less gullible. Sated after the fifth biscuit, he read on.

So back to the analysis! Linking the core to the tail is a ‘guilt-hook’. I think this may be a more modern trick, though it was certainly used extensively in Victorian chain letters. ‘Share [implied good] or discard [’delete’, for computers!]’ makes you feel guilty if you don’t share. Its place before the tail makes it seem less obviously another artifice by the time you get to the end.

But remember, in the viral model of our meme, all the words in ‘Paradox’ have one co-operative purpose and one purpose alone: to replicate themselves! If you share, they will replicate. Whether the writer was aware of this design at some level or not is irrelevant. Even if the original version of ‘Paradox’ had deliberately been constructed as a trick, most of its words come from prior generations of an ancient lineage that previously impinged upon the writer. They are successfully replicating.

The tail is formed from a set of minor memes in their own right. You should bear in mind that memes can have sex and exchange characteristics, through the action of human manipulators, or indeed coagulate, the better to propagate themselves communally if that does so. In this case it does. The tail memes are all blindingly obvious clichés that you see everywhere. The best you can say about them is that they are innocuous. Though weary saws, they are true.

Their real purpose here is to seal the preceding “past is better” message into your brain by using a string of sweet truths, which you can’t possibly deny. In my opinion they are more than sweet, they are sickly. But by now you may be so hypnotized that you probably think you are receiving inner wisdom from a great sage, not gaudy old sayings that decorate cheap fiction and the text of fringe religions.

So much for detailed mechanisms, but what about the overall effect? Is ‘Paradox’ just trying to fool you? Is that indeed the purpose of any version of ‘the past is better’ meme?

Well, not directly. Memes have no intelligence and therefore no ‘purpose’ as such. In fact, simple memes of this sort have far fewer degrees of freedom than say, a cold virus. But in a similar way they exploit our weaknesses in order to replicate. This is what they are really about. Fooling us is just a consequence.

In order to replicate, the meme must make you feel very good, so good that you want to share your feeling with your friends, hence sharing the meme and contributing to its survival. Yet at first sight, ‘Paradox’ would seem to be a depressing litany against our era, so why does it make one feel good?

Its action is subtle and works via a sense of empowerment. The world might be bad, but after reading it, you know exactly why! It’s surely only those bungling politicians and academics who don’t [runs the implication]!! ‘Paradox’ even supplies hope of a panacea for all social ills; “if only things were just as they used to be,” it almost shouts, “everything would be alright.”

Not only that, it sweetly reminds you in its tail of what’s really important, so you will be fine if you just follow its advice, whatever happens to anyone else in the modern world. Clearly this knowledge has to be passed on to those people who are close to you, so they’ll be alright along with you.

Viewed in this light, ‘Paradox’ can be unmasked as a hopelessly wrong but comforting platitude. Its silky words are pitched to release soothing chemicals from the brain; this is what makes you feel good.

For a moment as Alan continued scrolling, he thought the message had ended there. But then a couple more lines popped up.

Well that’s probably enough for you to think about for now. Anyway, shouldn’t you be working? — Memmet.

“Probably should,” Alan agreed in his head. But then realization hit him and he stared hard at the words. How could Memmet know when he’d chosen to read this section? There was no attribute for an acknowledgement on the message; had he just guessed?

He put the thought aside for a while, because the bit about ‘soothing chemicals’ had triggered a recent memory that now crowded into his consciousness and made him wince. He recalled his warm, smug feeling after first reading ‘Paradox’, the eagerness with which he’d wanted to share it with friends and colleagues.

Knowing now that his response was entirely manufactured by a clever word disease, was debasing and strange. A cold virus will manufacture a sneeze in just the same manner, he mused, in order to try and replicate itself in nearby hosts. It made him feel quite vulnerable. Yet countering this, Memmet’s education provided a sense of intellectual strength. Surely he was fully immunized now?

As if to prove this was the case he made a perception purely of his own, which lifted a veil from another memory of the same evening. It dawned on him that the hasty message he’d sent to Gwen had been triggered by inappropriate guilt, which in turn had stemmed from the guilt-hook and sickly tail-memes on the end of ‘Paradox’. Left to his own devices, he may well have emailed before going to bed anyway, or at worst the next day. But in either case he would have sent something far more considered and genuine. He was very glad some sixth sense had prevented him from sending her the ‘Paradox’ verses themselves.

He rinsed out his mug and went back out into the sunshine, with an enthusiasm for the afternoon’s tasks he hadn’t felt in quite a while.

* * *


Proceed to part 8...

Copyright © 2007 by Andrew West

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